Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



Friday, September 24, 2010

Le Formal Restaurant Review



Okay, I admit it, I’m an over-achiever. One of my goals for this year was to eat out at a restaurant once a week. I have far exceeded that goal. At home in Winnipeg, Jim and I once actually made a new year’s resolution to eat out at a restaurant once a month, then failed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Winnipeg restaurants (Bistro 7 ¼, Fusion, etc.), it’s just that when it comes down to it, we just prefer cooking at home.

And I do love cooking here in our apartment in Aix-en-Provence. The kitchen is better equipped, more elegant and more spacious than what I have at home in Winnipeg. Not to mention the summer kitchen outdoors.

But here’s what happens: we’re walking home from French class. Along the way we stop to look at a dozen menus. If we choose a slightly different route home, we have yet another dozen menus to check out. So the other day, we noticed the plat du jour at Le Grillon, a small bistro on the Cours Mirabeau, not noted in any restaurant guides. It featured two choices of omelettes, one with girolles (what we call chanterelles at home) and trompettes de la mort (black mushrooms). It was too much to resist for my mushroom-loving husband. Within minutes, we had a street-side table, a little pichet of rosé wine and one each of the omelettes on offer with a little salad beside. The omelettes were perfect – generously filled with mushrooms, garlic and parsley, tender on the outside and creamy inside – “baveuse” (runny) is the term they use.

We also enjoyed our first gastronomic experience with our friends Paul and Qi, who visited us just a few days after our arrival. The restaurant Le Formal is named after the chef, not the mode of decorum. It’s built into a cave with lots of exposed stone, so it’s cosy, yet smattered with sleek modern touches. The feeling is quite relaxed and friendly.

We opted for the seven-course meal. It is my firm belief that anyone visiting France, even on a budget, should try the seven-course meal once (or even five or four-course meal). In a restaurant such as this, portions are small so that you can really enjoy each morsel and then leave without having burst the buttons of your new French outfit.

I don’t normally opt for the luxe ingredients, but there they were: salad with summer truffles to start. Then fois gras “sandwich”, with the lobe of duck liver creatively skewered between two crisp croutons, accompanied by rhubarb sauce and fig ice cream flavoured with ginger. We were instructed to eat all of the ingredients together, which proved a bit of a challenge for Paul who prefers to eat each ingredient on his plate one after the other. He rose to the occasion, however, and enjoyed every bite. Next came a cellophane bag which contained scallops, coral attached, with barely cooked fois gras and a jus of arugula. The server unwrapped our packages for us, unleashing a heady aroma. After that Paul and I enjoyed lamb encased in filo pastry, which melted in our mouths. Jim opted for sweetbreads and Chi chose the pigeon with a huge shrimp alongside. Our cheese “ball” was breaded and fried and served as a lollipop. Clos Sainte Magdeleine wine from Cassis matched much of our meal. As for dessert, check out the photo.


While Paul and Qi were here we also climbed a mountain together (not with Jim, who has a bum knee) and we cooked at home. We made salade nicoise, magret de canard and grilled rouget (lovely little red fish). I’ll share all of the recipes along the way. For now here’s one:

INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: HARICOTS VERTS
For twenty years I have searched for seeds for the delicate green beans that are so common here in France, without success. Personally, I am partial to any sort of green bean, but, I must say, the slender ones I find here at the markets are just so perfect.




RECIPE OF THE WEEK: SALADE NIÇOISE
Some people say an authentic salade niçoise contains no cooked vegetables. But mine always includes green beans (haricots verts) and baby potatoes, therefore some cooking is required (but not much). My salad never includes lettuce. And I always dress all of the ingredients separately, then arrange them in separate piles on a huge platter with the tuna in the middle. This proved to be a huge relief to Paul, who could then choose to eat each ingredient in order. The boiled eggs, olives, and anchovies, however, are scattered around. As it happened, though, the night Paul and Qi arrived, I forgot to add the anchovies.

First I make a vinaigrette for everything: some minced shallot, a big tablespoon of mustard and a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper, then a few more tablespoons of good olive oil. Here in France I can add a big spoonful of pistou, because it is readily available, otherwise, feel free to throw in some chopped basil.

Then I start on the vegetables. First steam (or boil) a big handful of baby potatoes (ratte potatoes are my choice here, very petite and oddly shaped), then mix them with some vinaigrette as soon as they are tender and still warm. Steam the green beans next, which take just a few minutes, then plunge them in ice water to cool, then they mix them with a spoonful of vinaigrette. Then consider: chopped tomatoes, julienned carrots, sliced beets (one can find them already cooked in the market here – more on that another time!). Again, I dress each vegetable separately and pile each one in a circle on a platter. Open 2 cans of tuna for 4 or 6 people, oil-packed if you want the great flavour, water-packed if you’re watching your waistline. Mix the tuna with more vinaigrette, and plop it into the middle of your platter. Surround everything with halves of boiled eggs, olives, capers if you wish, and drape over the anchovies. Serve with rosé wine.

STREET FOOD:
People often rush down the street nibbling on a croissant or a piece of pizza, always folded over, wrapped in a piece of paper. But they would never dream of walking down the street drinking coffee. I don’t think take-out coffee exists here.


A la prochaine,
Andrea

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Soupe au pistou




We have now been in Aix-en-Provence for two weeks. In some ways it feels like a eternity, as so much has already happened. At the same time, I feel I need to take a deep breath and say, we’re going to be here for a year – I don’t need to accomplish everything today.

For example, we have still not done anything actual cultural in Aix, unless our oenology (wine tasting) class counts. We had a tour of the city on our first day of French class at IS, which was excellent. But we have not yet walked into the cathedral, have not visited the Musée Granet, have not ventured up to the Atelier Cézanne. But I’m trying to remain calm. We will have time for all of that.

Here’s what I have done:


Completed two weeks of French class at IS, where I met some amazing people
Picked up our car (which we bought from my friend Sandy and was waiting for us in her town of Montpeyroux), which was an odyssey I will recount another day
Experienced our first mistral, the nasty wind that blows through Provence from time to time
Experienced our first national strike, or grève
Experienced our first rain storm
Shopped at the market every day – which I am now an expert at doing during our 30-minute break during French class
Learned how to play pétanque properly
Climbed Mont Ste.-Victoire (see photo) where I picked handfuls of wild rosemary and thyme
Peddled down the Gorge du Verdon
Swam in the ocean at La Ciotat
Made espresso in our machine successfully, finally. Next step, to steam the milk.

Our first Saturday at the market was surely the most exciting. There is a market in the Place Richelme seven days a week, which I find so impressive, and on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the market triples in size and spills into several squares in the old town of Aix, plus all of the streets that connect them. The fruit and vegetable displays are overwhelming. But then, if one has time, there are the clothes stalls (not bad fashions, actually), household items, linens (Provençal, of course), antiques, and then the other food items like tapenades, cheese and roasted chickens (which smell fantastic as you walk by).

One of my first stops was to buy a panier, a market basket. I chose one that was way too large (I bumped into everyone along the narrow paths after that) but nevertheless filled it quickly to the brim.




INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: Coco beans

So what went into my first market basket? My very first purchase was a healthy bunch of plump pink garlic. Then an enormous bouquet of basil. Also coco beans, which are not normally found chez nous: they are long beans with a colourful mottled red and white pod which one must shell, then cook gently in water for awhile, say for soup (see below). We were also enticed by the array of vividly-coloured tomatoes – red, green, black, pink, large, small. Also the delicate haricots verts, which I find quintessentially French and are perfectly in season. Then zucchini and fresh farm eggs. Of course we couldn’t resist the goat cheese displayed by a local producer, who offered a variety of styles, from absolutely fresh, sold in a slender cup (brousse), to pungent week-old cheese with a golden crust. We also searched out some peaches, both the white and yellow variety, which need a couple of days to ripen, plus the most succulent figs imaginable. We also needed to stop at the olive stall for wrinkly olives from Nyons, a black olive tapenade (made from crushed olives mixed with a little garlic, anchovies, and a drop of brandy) seasoned in this case with basil, caviar d’aubergine (a fancy name for purée of eggpant), pistou (more on that below), a one-year supply of sun-dried tomatoes (why?) and a handful of salt-cured anchovies.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: SOUPE AU PISTOU

This was the first meal we made after arriving in our apartment. We were scrambling to unpack our suitcases, load up the fridge, un-muddle the instructions for all of these new French appliances and enjoy the last rays of sunlight. Nevertheless we managed to put together a satisfying soup that just sang with the flavours and scents of the market.

I didn’t quite measure the ingredients, but threw in about a handful of each vegetable (which served two generously). First I chopped an onion and cooked it in some olive oil. I added a bay leaf and a few sprigs of thyme, then garlic. When they were soft I added the shelled coco beans and about 4 and a half cups of water and simmered them while I chopped the other vegetables. In they went, in order: carrots, beans, zucchini, tomato and then, because I forgot to buy potatoes, a handful of penne pasta that happened to be in the pantry. Cooking time was about 50 minutes total (according some of my recipe books it often takes a couple of hours, but not in my case).

Then for serving, I borrowed a tip from Patricia Wells and floated a large basil leaf in each bowl into which I spooned a blob of pistou, which is meant to be stirred into the soup. Pistou is the French equivalent of pesto. It’s made with basil, garlic and oil, but is missing the pine nuts and cheese that you usually find in pesto. At home I enjoy making a fresh pistou, but here, all you need to do is ask for it at the market, and you have a little barquette of the freshly-made stuff.

A note, pistou is pronounced like pee-stoo. When we had friends around one time and I served this soup, Ann kept asking me where the peas were. She thought I had said “pea stew”.




YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:

You hear someone say “Ooh-la-la-la-la-la-la”

The extra “la-las” are reserved for an extraordinary event. This was our taxi driver’s response to observing another car drive up the wrong way on a one-way street, heading towards the pedestrian zone.

A bientôt,
Andrea

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Arrival in Aix-en-Provence




August 26th was my 50th birthday. That's the day Jim and I boarded a plane for southern France for one year. After four flights, three bus rides and one taxi ride, we made it to Aix-en-Provence, with all of our luggage, despite tight connections. Temperature upon arrival: 32 degrees – hot and breezy.

This is my first blog posting and I hope you will enjoy following our adventures. I’m not intending this to be a personal day-by-day diary, but rather a collection of thoughts and discoveries, especially into the world of Provençal culture and food, with a few recipes thrown in for your pleasure.

This trip is something I have been planning and anticipating for three and a half years. I have never done anything like this before and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do so. It’s a year away from Winnipeg and from my job at CBC. Jim will spend the year here writing music.

In the last week before we left Winnipeg, we sold the car (our beloved Camry) and packed away all of our dishes, glasses, linens, instruments and Inuit sculptures in preparation for renting out our house. Valorie, Neil and Owen now have the keys to our house. And our tomatoes and tarragon and squash blossoms.

In recent days and weeks I have felt such contrasting emotions. One moment I was so excited I could almost taste it, the next moment I felt that there was no way I would ever get on a plane. But we did, thanks in no small part to our families! (Thank you!!)

My husband, Jim and I have installed ourselves in an elegant apartment right smack in the middle of Aix-en-Provence. Despite being on the busy boulevard du Roi René, the feeling here is very tranquil, as the back of the apartment spills out onto a lush garden with lovely dining table, comfy chairs and, best of all, a summer kitchen, something I’ve dreamed about having forever. This will be our home for the next little while and it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It has exceeded all of my expectations and my wildest dreams.

We spent our first day taking care of business and getting oriented. Here’s what we accomplished in 24 hours:

Arrived
Bought car insurance (in French)
Walked the famous Cours Mirabeau under the plane trees
Found a "music on the street" festival
Got hopelessly lost
Sipped a Kir (white wine with a few drops of crème de cassis) to mark my birthday celebration in the late sun, also on the Cours Mirabeau
Bought new earrings in the late-night street market
Ate first buttery croissant
Bought a huge panier (basket) and filled it with market produce
Savoured rouget (red mullet – a delicate fish not found anywhere near Winnipeg)
Bought a SIM card for the cell phone
Checked into the apartment
Got hopelessly lost

It has been rather surreal – a mix of soaking it all in, racing around to try to do everything and pinching myself to convince myself that it is real.

Now while I don't like resolutions, it did seem wise to set some goals for this year-long adventure, if only to avoid descending into a state of total sloth. But I also thought the goals should be modest and achievable (I don’t want to fail at my year off in France!).

So my goals so far are to:
Discover something every day
Practice French every day (easy – since I have signed up for daily French classes!)
Exercise every day (chopping leeks doesn't count)
Eat out once a week (other people may find this strange)
Stroll with the locals
Sample breads other than baguette and croissant
Buy flowers once a week at the flower market
Learn all about Cézanne, who lived in Aix
Enjoy cooking all day if I feel like it (but not every day)
Read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
Write about my experiences.

FIRST OBSERVATIONS:
Everyone smokes (too bad)
Everyone strolls (which I love)

So that’s blog-posting #1.

A bientôt,
Andrea